Christmas Night Mass
Saint Patrick’s Parish
Dec. 24/25, 2016
I don’t believe I can even begin to count the number of times in my life when I felt like I didn’t belong, like I was out of place. Growing up I was a goofy kid, in many ways I’m still a goofy kid, but back then I was definitely a goofy kid. It’s a terrible feeling but a feeling that is all too human. One of the worst aspects of this feeling was the dread that someone else would also notice, that someone else might point out that I didn’t belong. If I were to pick one such episode from my life, it would be high school lunch. I was right where I belonged, according to my schedule that is, but there was frequently a large amount of anxiety over who I might sit with this time? How might I fit in today? I am all but certain that I wasn’t the only one to feel this way, but it felt like it.
Our Gospel today is full of examples of this tension between belonging and not belonging; of being exactly where one is supposed to be but not fitting into one’s surroundings. The first of these examples is Mary and Joseph. We hear about how in those days the great Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered that the entire Roman world be numbered, and so Joseph left his home in Nazareth and traveled to his ancestral homeland of Bethlehem. He arrived exactly where tradition told him he was supposed to be, but there was no room, no place for them to stay. They belonged there, but they were still out of place.
A second example is the shepherds, the first people, the only ones to whom the angels went to announce the birth of the Christ. Now I believe we often have an overly romantic vision regarding the shepherds of the ancient world. You can see evidence of this way of viewing the shepherds in our nativity scene. They just look so… nice, but believe me shepherds of that period were not nice. They were anything but nice. These were hard men who lived their lives out in nature. When people worried about night-time traveling they weren’t just concerned about robbers and killers, they were on the lookout for the shepherds as well. These men were often criminals, and they were often feared.
All the parents out there, I want you to think back to the birth of your first child. I want you to imagine a big guy coming to the door; perhaps he has tattoos on his face and even a large knife on his belt, and this intimidating stranger says that he wants to see your baby and that a bunch of angels has sent him no less! Just imagine! He doesn’t belong, and yet he does belong because the angels went to them and invited them, some of the lowliest and most feared people of that time. Saturday Night Live has often done a great job with their Christmas sketches and this year that had one of Mary and Joseph right after the birth of Jesus. Mary is, of course, exhausted after giving birth, but Joseph is more than happy to let anyone, and everyone, who comes to the door in to see the child while the whole scene dramatically embarrasses Mary. I believe this sketch helps to point out the tension between those who don’t belong and yet do belong.
The greatest example of this tension between belonging and not belonging is Jesus Christ himself. Amid all the tension surrounding his birth, God-made-man leaves the safety of the womb and enters the world. If anyone doesn’t belong in this scene, it would be him. There are of course aspects of a child being born in a stable which do not fit but much deeper than that the almighty God has decided to send his word to take on human flesh – the infinite and the finite have mixed. After 2,000 plus years of Christian worship, I think we miss the total audacity which is the Incarnation: God becoming man, perfectly God and yet also perfectly human. He doesn’t belong here, and yet he does all because he decided to, only God can make the impossible possible.
I believe this tension between not belonging and yet somehow belonging is near universal to the human experience. Just like in my example many of us wouldn’t have to think outside our experience of high school, either current or years ago, to recall that feels, that terrible feeling of not belonging even though you are right where you’re supposed to be. I have a term for this tension between belonging and yet not belonging and I want to take a second to see if you guess what I’m thinking of… my term for this tension is church, yes, church. None of us belong here; if we take an honest look at ourselves, we’ll see that we are all hypocrites and sinners. I know I am. There are also those ‘out there’ the ones out in the world who might look in and say ‘who do they think are? They’re just a bunch of sinners like the rest of us!’ I says that’s the point, that’s why we’re here, because we’re not perfect and just like the baby Jesus didn’t belong in that manger, and he certainly doesn’t belong among as flesh and blood; that same God-made-man who decided to belong where he didn’t belong makes the same decision to dwell in our hearts. God goes out of his way defying preconceived notions about where and with whom he belongs or doesn’t belong. My brothers and sisters, we belong exactly where we are, amongst other sinners and hypocrites just like us, and our God meets us right where we are.